Researchers at Harvard University have discovered that our experience of pain depends on whether we think someone caused the pain intentionally. In their study, participants who believed they were getting an electrical shock from another person on purpose, rather than accidentally, rated the very same shock as more painful. Participants seemed to get used to shocks that were delivered unintentionally, but those given on purpose had a fresh sting every time.
The practical implications of this finding are pretty interesting:
…These findings speak to how people experience pain and negative life events. If negative events are seen as intended, they may hurt more. This helps to explain why torture is so excruciating – not only are torture techniques themselves exceptionally painful, but it’s the thought that counts—and makes torture hurt more than mere pain.
On the other hand, if negative events are seen as unintended, they may hurt less. This may explain, in part, why people in abusive relationships sometimes continue to stay in them. By rationalizing that an abusive partner did not intend harm, some victims may reduce their experience of pain, which could make them less likely to leave the relationship and escape the abuse.